This blog is beginning to look like an obit column. Last week it was William Styron. Now it’s Ed Bradley. His death made the front page at both The New York Times (here) and the Washington Post. Whether he was an icon or a trailblazer for black journalists is beside the point. He was the real thing, black or white, as this profile showed long ago:
It ran on Feb. 6, 1983, in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. This is how it went:
Q. My daughter and I have been discussing whether Ed Bradley of the Sunday night CBS-TV series “60 Minutes” is black? Will you please settle this matter? — B.H., Springfield, Ohio.
A. TV journalist Ed Bradley is black.
— Parade Magazine, Jan. 9, 1983
CLOSEUP / JAN HERMAN
NEW YORK — “Is he black?” said Ed Bradley’s boss. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Don Hewitt, executive producer of “60 Minutes,” percolated rather than sat behind his desk. Milky daylight filtered through the large windows of his corner office across the street from the CBS Broadcast Center on Manhattan’s West Side. He answered the phone. He asked someone to stop by later to see a videotape. He shouted, “Don’t let him get away!” and his secretary nabbed the man with the coffee cart gliding by the door.
“You know,” Hewitt continued, “when we finally decided who was going to replace [Dan] Rather, it happened on a day I was addressing a black employee association. They asked, ‘Who is it?’ I said, ‘Ed Bradley.’ And there was a lot of applause. I said, ‘Hey, hold it. You don’t understand something. We would have hired Ed Bradley if he were white.'”
Hewitt came around his desk, fishing coins from his pocket for a can of diet soda. “Coffee for you?” he asked. He pulled out more coins. His mood was ebullient. If it seemed odd that the boss of one of the most profitable news shows in CBS history should have to pay for drinks in his office, it nevertheless confirmed his reputation for the common touch.
“Bradley’s as good a reporter as I’ve met in my life,” Hewitt said. “His presence on screen is big and important. He is what he purports to be. He doesn’t just look the part, he is the part. He is not a facade. A lot of television journalists are elitists. They didn’t get hired, they got ordained. They think journalism is the priesthood, which is complete bull—-. Bradley is the opposite of that.”
Two years after joining “Don’s Angels,” as a jocular writer once dubbed Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner, Bradley is flying with a full set of wings and a halo around his head. When I caught up with him over breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, I wondered if he had ever heard Hewitt’s anecdote about the black employee association meeting. Bradley put down his large glass of fresh orange juice, which he was savoring with his first cigarette of the day, and grinned so hard the gap showed in his chipped front teeth.
“I hadn’t heard that one,” he said. “Racially, I’m black. I’m not a ‘black journalist.’ The thing is, I have never allowed myself to be painted into that corner. And I’ve consciously made that decision. I didn’t want to be an ‘urban affairs’ expert, the reporter who does the ‘black stories.’ I’m not saying that doing that kind of reporting is wrong. If that’s what some people want to do, fine. You need people who specialize. If I had done that, I would never have gone to Paris. I would never have been a foreign correspondent. I would never have covered the Vietnam War. I would never have gone to Israel. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
What the 41-year-old Bradley is doing is what he loves best: cover the world. Now that the television networks have bureaus everywhere, “there are no more globe-trotters, like Lowell Thomas, Bob Consodine or Richard Harding Davis,” as Hewitt is fond of saying. Bradley and the rest of the “60 Minutes” crew are the exceptions. Catching up with him is like trying to catch the wind. It is easier to stand still and let him rendezvous with you. He’ll eventually blow by. His beat keeps him on the move for an average of 250,000 miles a year.
In person, Bradley does not disappoint. Hoisting his garment bag and trench coat for the bellman, he looked very much the world traveler who travels light. His only other piece of luggage was a small leather briefcase bulging with papers, a microphone for his interviews and a book for long, tedious flights.
“I love thrillers,” he said. “I get one by Robert Ludlum and read it and I say, ‘Damn, why didn’t you write two?’ It’s nice escapist stuff. I think my ambition is one day to write a thriller.”
In tweed jacket and jeans, with a maroon tie and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket, Bradley seemed at once nattier and more casual than he does on screen. But his salt-and-pepper beard and tortoise-shell glasses also reinforced the impression he can give of an interviewer so academic and laid back as to appear almost bored.
“Naw,” Bradley said. “That’s just my style. I don’t knock them over the head unless they need to be. I tend to sit back. ‘Here, how much rope do you want? You want a little more? Come on, it’s yours.’ I just sit back and listen. That’s the key to doing a good interview, being a good listener. If someone is aware that you’re interested in what they’re saying, they tend to talk. All you have to do is steer them in the right direction.”
He took another swallow of orange juice, fielding the stares of a group of women like a second baseman gloving an infield drive. Sudden recognition is routine for Bradley, and he handles it with aplomb. He respects it. He doesn’t bask in it. The women, thrown out at first base, so to speak, returned to their dugout, apparently satisfied at not having struck out completely.
“You know, the funniest thing happened to me just before I got down here,” Bradley said, lowering his voice. “I dialed my producer’s number and this voice said, ‘Hello?’ I said, ‘OK, you ready?’ She said, ‘Yeah, uh, what do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘Monica?’ She said, ‘No,’ and she started laughing. So I said, ‘Sorry, wrong woman.’ She said, ‘Well, it’s probably the best one you’ll have all day.’ I dialed again. Would you believe it? I got the wrong woman again.”
Bradley, hugely entertained, began eating his toast. He is a man who knows how to play his luck. For example, in 1978 Bradley flew to Malaysia to do a “CBS Reports” documentary about boat people escaping from Vietnam. It was his first documentary for the program, and when he got to the island of Kuala Trenganu, he found a contingent of TV journalists already there. They had been waiting for refugees to land for a week. None had. So the government set up a tour of its refugee camps, and the camera crews went.
Not Bradley. He decided to catch up on his sleep. As luck would have it, a boat materialized just as he began to doze. Bradley rushed to the beach and got an exclusive. More than that, when local villagers began stoning the boats to prevent them from landing, Bradley dived into the water and helped carry the refugees ashore. Later he played postman for their letters to America. The “CBS Reports” cameras caught it all.
Hewitt was so captivated by the footage of “The Boat People,” he grabbed some for “60 Minutes.” And he never forgot it. Later that footage helped him decide to hire Bradley. “The Boat People” also won a Columbia-duPont Award andd the Overseas Presss Club Edward R. Murrow Award.
“Awards are weird,” Bradley said. “I went to the Emmys certain I would take something for correspondent and I walked away with nothing. I figured if I couldn’t win an Emmy for ‘The Boat People,’ the award doesn’t mean anything. [The broadcast as a whole took an Emmy.] Then I didn’t go, and I got two [in 1980 for “Too Little Too Late,” a series on Cambodian refugees, and for “Miami: The Trial That Sparked the Riots.]” You just can’t figure it. So I don’t go anymore.” (He also won another Emmy for correspondent in 1981 for “Murder Teenage Style.”)
Bradley lives in New York and is married to songwriter Priscilla Coolidge. The only child of divorced parents, he grew up in Philadelphia and began his broadcasting careeer in 1963. He was studying to become a teacher when he met thhe most popular disc jockey in town at the time.
“He came to speak at a colleege course called ‘School and Community,'” Bradley said. “The idea was to show us what it would be like to teach in tough schools, y’know, where the kids didn’t come from homes with white picket fences. All those kids listened to him and that meant he knew how to communicate with them.
“Anyway, he invited me out to the station and I thought, Oh, boy, this looks like fun. How can I get in? It didn’t occur to me at that point that I should be paid for it. I wasn’t even looking at it as a future career. It was just an opportunity to get my foot in the door. I did a jazz show six hours a day six days a week for no money.”
But by 1967 Bradley had made up his mind to give up teaching and become a broadcast journalist. Having moved from music into spot news, public affairs and sports, he went to New York and auditioned for the local CBS radio station. He was hired as a street reporter, a job he held until 1970. He even turned down a couple of CBS television offers during that period, he says, because it would have required desk work part of the time and it would have paid less than his radio salary.
Then Bradley took a month’s vacation in Europe and discovered Paris.
“I was supposed to be there for three days,” he said. “I stayed for three weeks. I loved it so much I figured that was where I wanted to live. So I came back, quit my job and went to Paris for two years. It’s still my favorite city. I didn’t work there for the first nine months, and when I ran out of money, CBS asked me to be a stringer. I looked around at all the job possibilities I had — all two of them — and that was the most appealing.”
Although being a radio stringer gave him freedom, Bradley decided by 1972 that he wanted a staff job again. This time he head for CBS-TV in New York, only to discover there were no openings. What’s more, he also discovered he disliked New York. In a flippant moment he told the CBS News foreign editor he would rather live in Vietnam. The editor took him at his word. Bradley found himself assigned to the Saigon bureau, covering the Vietnam War.
Since then his career has been distinguished and his rise has been steady. Reassigned to the CBS Washington bureau in 1974, he volunteered to cover the fall of Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. (He was evacuated from Saigon and Phnom Penh.) The following year he covered Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and became CBS White House correspondent upon Carter’s election. Feeling confined by that assignment, however, Bradley moved to “CBS Reports” in 1978 and continued to anchor the “Sunday Night News” until 1981, when he joined “60 Minutes.”
“You know what?” said Bradley, finishing his breakfast. “I think I’m gonna ask for a raise.”
Then he looked at his watch.
“Oh sh–,” he said. “I’d better check out. Want a lift?”
“Thanks, no,” I said, not wanting to get out at 39,000 feet over some ocean.